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Obama defends choice for CIA chief

Obama lobbies lawmakers on behalf of Leon Panetta. One critic calls the pick a 'Hail Mary pass.'

January 07, 2009|Greg Miller and Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — After promising during the campaign to restore order and accountability to the nation's spy agencies, President-elect Barack Obama has been beset by uncharacteristic blunders in his effort to assemble an intelligence team.

His selection of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director marked the first time Obama faced immediate opposition from his own party over a Cabinet nomination. Leading lawmakers were angered that they weren't consulted and dismayed that Obama had chosen a candidate with scant intelligence experience.

As the controversy unfolded Tuesday, there were new indications that Panetta was not Obama's first choice for the job. A number of candidates, including former U.S. counter-terrorism official Richard A. Clarke, declined the post.

Seemingly caught off-guard by the fallout, Obama moved to vigorously defend the Panetta pick and started an intensive lobbying campaign to convince lawmakers that the onetime senior aide to President Clinton was a viable candidate to lead the CIA.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
CIA director: An article in Wednesday's Section A about the selection of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director described the job as a Cabinet position. A CIA director must be confirmed by the Senate, but it is not a Cabinet post.

Obama sought to deflect the criticism by again calling attention to Bush administration intelligence programs that he plans to dismantle.

"I think people will see that we are putting together a top-notch intelligence team," Obama said, one that is "committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of the agencies."

But in seeking to soothe the controversy, Obama may have ruffled other feathers. Taking a swipe at previous directors, Obama said his team would work to ensure that U.S. spy agencies were "no longer geared toward telling the president what the president wants to hear."

The remark appeared to be aimed mainly at former CIA Director George J. Tenet, infamous for telling the president that the U.S. had a "slam dunk" case against Iraq's alleged illegal weapons programs.

But the comment will probably rile the CIA rank and file.

"If Obama thinks that the community was telling the president what he wanted to hear, then he hasn't been fully briefed," said one former high-ranking agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the political controversy.

Obama's search for a CIA director has been an unusual struggle for a politician known for his no-drama persona and remarkably smooth transition to power.

The stakes are significant. Within weeks, the Obama administration will be in charge of overseeing a sprawling intelligence empire engaged in two wars and scarred by criticism surrounding its failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks or accurately assess Iraq's weapons programs.

The former agency official described the Panetta pick as a "Hail Mary pass, where they found themselves a couple weeks before the inauguration with no candidate and needed someone plausible in the role."

Obama has not formally announced the nominations of Panetta as CIA director and retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as the director of national intelligence, which oversees all 16 U.S. spy agencies.

Nevertheless, Obama's team lobbied on Capitol Hill to win support for the pair. Vice President-elect Joe Biden even said in an interview that it was a mistake not to have consulted with lawmakers about the selections.

The push appeared to have some success. A number of key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will conduct hearings on Panetta's confirmation, came out in support of the candidate. Among them were Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.

And a day after signaling that she might oppose the nomination, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) discussed phone calls she received from Obama and Biden.

"They have explained to me the reasons why they believe Leon Panetta is the best candidate for CIA director," said Feinstein, who as chairwoman of the intelligence panel would preside over his confirmation hearings.

Without offering praise or criticism, Feinstein said she was looking forward to a conversation with Panetta about "the critical issues facing the intelligence community and his plans to address them."

Feinstein said Panetta's prospects might be "enhanced" if the CIA's deputy director, Stephen Kappes, remained in place.

Kappes, a career CIA officer, has been credited with helping to restore morale at the agency and is regarded as a seasoned hand who could compensate for Panetta's inexperience.

Former U.S. intelligence officials close to the Obama team said there would be an effort to convince Kappes to stay.

Obama aides declined to comment on whether anyone else had been offered the CIA post before Panetta. But former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the process said several other candidates, including Clarke, had been approached.

Clarke, a former senior counter-terrorism official in the Bush administration who became an outspoken critic of the president after the Sept. 11 attacks, acknowledged in an interview that he had been approached "repeatedly" about various national security positions.

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